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Anabolism and catabolism: what marathoners should know

How understanding the delicate balance between anabolic and catabolic activity can benefit your training

Anabolism and catabolism are two terms endurance athletes may have heard, but whose significance to training they may not have fully explored. They are the components of metabolism, which, in simple terms, is defined as all the biochemical processes that sustain life–specifically, how calories are burned to fuel activities that require energy (i.e. running). Anabolism, in this case, refers to the building and re-building of tissue that takes place during rest and recovery, and catabolism refers to the tissue damage that is the initial result of training.

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Lelisa Desisa and his training partners in Ethiopia. Photo: Nike

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In his books on endurance training, Dr. Phil Maffetone uses the analogy of a car’s brakes (anabolism) and gas pedal (catabolism). He points out that runners ignore the need to balance catabolic activity with anabolic activity at their peril. For training adaptations to take place and one’s performance to steadily improve over the course of a training block, rest and recovery are crucial. In the absence of sufficient rest and recovery, the repeated stress of catabolic activity leads to fatigue, excessive soreness, illness and injury–all the hallmarks of overtraining. A focus on hammering every workout and a philosophy of “no pain, no gain” is to blame, and it’s usually counterproductive.

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Calum Neff on a training run during a recent stint in California and Nevada. Photo: provided.

Maffetone’s theories are not new–his Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing was originally published in 2010 and his book 1:59, which outlined what types of training would be optimal for a sub-two-hour marathon, in 2014. His theories have largely fallen out of favour among endurance athletes, but consider the world’s most successful athletes (people like Eliud Kipchoge–whom Maffetone pegged as a possible candidate for a 1:59 marathon five years ago–and Ed Whitlock, who held more than 35 age group records at one time or another), who in many ways exemplify these concepts. Though Kipchoge is completely focused on training during the week, he does not train at the expense of rest and recovery.

Photo: Alan Brookes

“One of the little known facts about why the Kenyans are the best distance runners of the modern era will surprise you,” Maffetone writes in 1:59. “It’s that they value their downtime. In addition to living and training at altitude, elite Kenyan runners spend a great deal of their day resting or sleeping when not training. Nap time is recovery time.” Similarly, Whitlock’s training was characterized by long, slow daily runs around a cemetery. He rarely ran more than one marathon per year. The only speedwork he did was racing.

Ed Whitlock
Photo: Canada Running Series

Maffetone emphasizes that since many factors affect training, including overall health, genetics, diet, environment, etc., training plans should be tailored to the individual, and re-assessed on a regular basis. “Properly monitoring the day-to-day workout and health status helps to ensure that one is achieving adequate training stimulation while avoiding overtraining.”